Thursday, March 08, 2018

We Think We Have It Tough

Daniel Cano                                                         
                                                           Boys' shop class, WLA Emerson Junior High circa 1930s  

                                                                   Peaches Story
     For this Bloga post, I decided to continue my exploration of family members and friends I interviewed in the early 2000s, mainly Chicanos and Chicanas of the WWII generation, the ones Tom Brokaw ignored in his popular book The Greatest Generation. These men and women, mostly offspring of Mexican immigrants, experienced tumultuous times in American history, the Great Depression, Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazism, the big band era, and the 1950s renaissance of the American economy and culture after the war, of which they played a major role. 
     I didn’t have to go far to find them. At the time, most still lived in the neighborhood, like many Chicanos and Chicanas of my parents’ generation, who still live in neighborhoods and barrios where they grew up, from L.A. to Tucson, Denver to El Paso, from San Antonio to St. Louis, all the way to Michigan. Their story is our story.
     As I listened, I found their stories not only relevant, but often riveting. Many told me no one had ever asked them about their past, so they were surprised that I'd be interested. 
     Most were excited to talk, yet still, leery of how much to reveal about themselves. They didn’t want to sound as if they were complaining or bragging. “That’s just the way things were back then,” I’d often hear them say when describing difficult the tough times they and their parents faced. 
     They suffered their setbacks privately, and quietly. Theirs was a generation that even kept their triumphs, and those of their families, to themselves. Sadly, as the years have passed, many are no longer with us in body, but fortunately, they will always be here in spirit.                                              

     "Here's another picture," Peaches said, handing me a small black and white photo. "It's your uncle Gilbert, right there in front. We all went to Emerson. The teachers always liked the light skin Mexicans better than the ones with darker skin."
     Peaches Herrera was born Narcisa Silva Rubio, in 1930, in West Los Angeles, or what she, and her husband, Lupe, called by its old name “Sawtelle,” the area near Sepulveda and Santa Monica Boulevard, where many of her friends grew up around a barrio they called La Garra (the rag) on Cotner Avenue.
     Cotner wasn’t just a Mexican barrio, it was a blend of migrants escaping the Oklahoma and Arkansas dust bowl, along with Japanese bachelors, who, at the time, had come to farm and garden the booming Westside of L.A. 
     Peaches’ father, Guadalupe (same name as her brother, husband, and father-in-law), and her mother Asencion Silva came to Sawtelle from Sherman (today West Hollywood) in the mid-to early twenties. Of her earliest memories in Sawtelle, Peaches said, "I remember my mother placing pots on an outdoor fire to warm water." 
     Guadalupe Rubio, Peaches' father, originally from Linares, Nuevo Leon, was raised in Monterey, Mexico, a city now famous for its industry and technical schools. Asencion Silva came to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico, as an orphan searching for her brother.   
     Peaches said, “My grandparents died of typhoid fever when my mother was about 13. My uncle was the first one to come out here.” 
     It was difficult for me to imagine a thirteen-year-old child making the treacherous journey from Guanajuato to the U.S. I’m sure in the 1920s, Mexicans didn’t just buy a one-way train ticket to Union Station. From what others have told me, it was a punishing journey, where one not only rode buses and trains, but horses and carriages, as well as walking much of the way.
     Guadalupe and Asuncion met in Sherman. She found work and lived in a boarding house. He worked at any job he could find. Peaches said, “My dad always claimed El Paso his town, so he must have worked in El Paso a long time before coming to California." Before arriving in Los Angeles, Guadalupe, along with many men, traveled the railroads as a hobo, always looking for a better job.  
     Peaches laughed when she remembered her father telling her about the time his family in Mexico had received word he’d been killed in a railroad accident, which, I’m sure, wasn’t so funny at the time. Apparently, Guadalupe and a friend from his hometown in Mexico had been hopping trains as they traveled throughout the U.S. from city to city looking for work. 
     One day, they saw the railroad police approaching. The train was already moving, so to escape, they ran, jumping from car to car, the police in pursuit. Fearful of going to jail, Guadalupe decided to jump from the fastmoving train onto the desert below, but just as he leaped from the train, he hit one of the telegraph posts lining the tracks. His friend figured there was no way a man could survive such a collision, so he returned to Monterey to tell Guadalupe's family their son had been killed. 
     Even though they never recovered the body, the family took the man at his word and held a funeral to mourn their son. Unknown to any of them, Guadalupe was not dead but had survived the accident. He never wrote to his family in Mexico, and just went on with his life. 
     Twenty years later, Guadalupe saw his friend, who surely must have thought he was seeing a ghost. Peaches chuckled as she told the story, but she also understood how much the family must have suffered. Her father finally returned to Mexico in 1945 to prove he was still alive, though probably by that time his parents had died.
     Peaches said, “My mom was orphaned at an early age and came to the U.S. from Guanajuato to look for her brother, my uncle.” 
     Not much is known about Asencion Silva’s trip except that she traveled to Sherman with a family she hardly knew. Once she arrived in Sherman, she met the Rojas family, who owned a boarding house in town, and they took her in as part of the family. 
     Located on what was once the Rancho La Brea, Sherman attracted hundreds of Mexican railroad men, experienced from working the railway lines in Mexico, the Midwest, and across the Southwest. Whereas many Chinese built the railroads in northern California, it was mostly Mexicans who built the railroads from the Midwest across the Southwest. 
     Many of the Mexican men who came to L.A.’s Westside, first arrived in Sherman, which was like other westside settlements, rugged western towns, whose saloons and cathouses (brothels) brought in more money than any other business establishments. In his book on West Hollywood, Ryan Gierach writes of Sherman’s prominence, “…Henry E. Huntington expanded Sherman’s operations to include 73 other railways into the Pacific Electric Railway Company, which ran the Red Cars.” 
     What few historians fail to mention is the Mexican labor not only helped build Sherman but L.A.s Westside, as well. Gierach states that in Sherman, “St. Victor’s Catholic Church…was donated by a Belgium businessman, Victor Ponet, who also lived in town. Ponet worried the mostly Catholic Mexicans were in danger of [losing their souls] without a church nearby, “…and he wanted railway workers to be attending mass instead of drinking alcohol on Sunday mornings.”
     Each day in Sherman, Guadalupe Rubio, Peaches’ father, would arrive at the boarding house where the women washed workers’ clothes and prepared their meals. Boarding houses back then not only rented rooms but sold lunches to the many Mexican bachelors who lived and worked in the area. It was at the boarding house where Asuncion and Guadalupe became acquainted. 
     Once they completed the majority of the railroad work in Sherman, the Mexican men, rather than go east to the Los Angeles barrios, decided to head west to Sawtelle, where they knew others from Guanajuato, Michoacan, and Jalisco had settled, and where employers were eager to hire Mexican workers in agriculture, construction, and landscaping. 
     Peaches said the woman who would one day become her godmother had already moved to Sawtelle. She and Asencion Silva had known each other as girls in Guanajuato, but, for some reason, it wasn’t easy leaving the boarding house. It seemed that someone there held a tight rein on Asencion. Peaches said she never knew the whole story, but she knew that her mother had to "run away" from the boarding house to elope with Guadalupe. After they married, they moved to Sawtelle to start a family.   
     It had to be around 1924, she remembered, because her older brother Lupe (a bumper crop year for the name Guadalupe) was born in Sawtelle in 1925, five years before her own birth. "My brother was such a good artist. If he had more education, he would have really been something," she told me.
     “Do you remember what kind of work your dad did once he arrived in West L. A.?” I asked.
     “Mostly gardening,” she said. New housing was sprouting in places like Bel-Air, Brentwood, and Westwood, homes with large estates, and Mexicans, who had worked their parents' farm and ranches in Mexico, knew how to nurture the soil.
     She remembered him telling her, years later, about the Depression years. She was too young, in 1933 to remember. Her father told her he’d have to line up with other Mexican men and wait on street corners for employers to pick them up, sometimes waiting all day without work. 
     I said, "Just like what is happening today." 
     She answered, sympathetically, "Except today there are many more people looking for work."  
     Then Peaches told me about the angel. She smiled as she remembered her mother telling her about an angel who appeared in the Sotel barrio during those difficult years. “At least,” she said, “it was an angel to my mother, and her friends.” 
     It had been the early days of the Depression. Asuncion, who was pregnant with Peaches, always felt ill. Money and food were scarce. People ate whatever they could get, and often they didn't have the vitamins needed to stay healthy, especially pregnant women.
     One day a man came through the neighborhood offering to deliver milk to the people in the neighborhood. The women told him they couldn’t afford to have milk delivered; in fact, few could afford to buy milk from the store, or from farmers coming around to sell it daily. He told them not to worry. They could pay when they had the money. 
     The milk started arriving each day on their porches. No one could ever explain who this man was because he never returned to collect the money. Who else but an angel, Asuncion asked Peaches?
     Peaches' husband, Lupe, had been listening intently to his wife's recollections. I'm sure he'd already heard the stories before. He said, shaking his head, "It really is something to think of the ways that our parents survived. That is really a story in itself." 
     Lupe and Peaches said they often wondered how it was even possible for their parents to raise families back then. Lupe said his parents had six sons and a daughter when little work, money, or food was available. There were never enough houses, and often they were too small. They said that yes, there were fruits and vegetables and chickens, but still, in Lupe’s family’s case, to keep a family of nine fed, housed, clothed, often under dire circumstances, he said "…was really a miracle in itself."
     I asked, “What about health insurance or hospital bills, things like that?
     They spoke fondly of Marion Davies, the famed actress, and mistress of newspaper mogul William Randolf Hearst, who opened a clinic in 1926, at the corner of Barrington Avenue and Olympic Boulevard. History books tell how Ms. Davies opened the clinic for the poor kids on the Westside. 
     Most of those I interviewed said, "That was us. We were the poor kids in the neighborhood." Ironically, most Chicanos from Los Angeles whom I met while I was in the army thought of Westside Chicanos as rich, because to them, only rich people lived on the Westside.
     Not so, said Lupe. “We didn’t have any money.” 
     Most parents took their kids to the Marion Davies' Clinic for immunizations and medical care. Gone were the days of curanderos and herbs. Everyone wanted doctors.
     Lupe said, "Tonsils, boy, were coming out left and right." 
     The kids learned if the doctor removed your tonsils part of the recuperation was to eat all the ice cream you wanted. The kids all over town complained about sore tonsils. They pressured their parents to take them to the Marion Davies Clinic. In those days, ice cream was a luxury that most families could not afford.
     Peaches said she received her first doll at the clinic. Each year, the staff gave a Christmas party and invited the neighborhood kids. Lupe said he remembered getting into a long line of kids waiting and looking at toys piled on tables and inching ever so closely until he received a toy, during a time when families had little or nothing during Christmas. 
     "She [Marion Davies] was wonderful. For us that was our Christmas," Lupe said. "Also, in those days, there was diphtheria and a lot of serious diseases [among poor people]." 
     The clinic served an important role, curbing many of the illnesses, and possibly stopping epidemics. Apparently, in those days, society was not concerned with one’s legal or illegal immigration status. What concerned the community was more practical, more humane: that sick people receive treatment before the sickness spread.
     Thinking about Christmas, Peaches said her parents never had the money for presents. Though her mother tried to save, her father did spend money on himself, especially on clothes. "He liked to go out. He provided the necessities, but we didn't get any of the little extras." 
     Still, Peaches remembered her mom "Putting my father on a pedestal, along with the boys. It seemed that everything was for them," she said, without bitterness, yet hinting at the unfairness of Mexican sexism, as if that was life in their family. 
     Peaches said one thing she always remembered about her father was his insistence that family eat dinner together. He did not tolerate talking at the dinner table, not a word, though he was a man who enjoyed talking everywhere else. However, the table was the place to eat, not to talk


Antonio SolisGomez said...

wonderful story-you're shedding light on a part of los angeles few peole know about,unless they lived it, like peaches.

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, Thanks. I know we all have stories like the Herrera-Rubio family.